It’s not quite the shock level of seeing Bob Dylan in a Pepsi ad, but it is surprising to see counterculture gastronome Anthony Bourdain serving as judge, mentor and producer on a glossy mainstream network cooking competition show And yet, here he is, the silver fox who has been known to knock fellow chefs he felt were overly-commercialized, fronting ABC’s The Taste, which launches Tuesday (Jan. 22) with a two-hour premiere.
What sets this program apart from other TV cook-offs is that Bourdain and his fellow judge/mentors Nigella Lawson, Ludo Lefebvre and Brian Malarkey are basing their culinary decisions on a single spoonful of the creations made by chefs they do not see. Bourdain took The Taste on, he said, because he liked the idea of shaping a show from the ground up, because it was something people didn’t expect him to do, and because it’s fun.
A The Taste luncheon featuring dishes from the show was served at the recent Television Critics Association press tour at the Langham Huntington Hotel in Pasadena, and that certainly was fun. Getting to sample such delectables as lemon tart and merengue kisses while the four chef stars circulated through the room could not have hurt in making critics feel kindly disposed toward the show. I wish I could share the coq a vin with you, but alas, the best I can do is share a little of Bourdain, that fascinating, sexy food adventurer and author. Sharing a table with him, I realized how much I’ve wanted to … eat with him.
“We’re four very experienced eaters, and tasters, and when you’ve eaten as well and as widely as the four of us, you develop preconceptions about the food, about who might be cooking, based on the taste and consistency,” said an affable and seemingly relaxed Bourdain. Um hm. This man once ate a cobra, did you know that?
“You get something that tastes like pork barbeque, you picture some big brawny guy in your head. Those kinds of preconceptions were constantly upended,” he went on. “Because you’re not judging the food based on technique, on knife work, on things like that, but entirely on the feel and the taste, the nonprofessionals had as clear a shot as the professionals. So we were surprised every day. And that’s fun.”
He explained that another enticement to do The Taste was the chance to work with the aristocratic and beautiful British food journalist Lawson, “who I go back a number of years with. I think we make an unlikely combination, but we actually have been friends for quite awhile and I really enjoy working with her, and Ludo is also a friend.”
Earlier, network chieftain Paul Lee told the press he expected Lefebvre to become the show’s breakout star, and Bourdain agreed with that assessment. “Yes, I think he’s funny, he’s charming, he’s incredibly talented. He has an extremely low level of patience, but he’s also … Ludo can be a real pussycat. I think you’re going to see both sides of him.”
He does not see himself, nor any of his fellow judges, as the Simon Cowell of the group. “I don’t know if there was a plan for a bad guy, for a tough judge, but nobody fell into that groove. We all ended up taking the show really seriously. We all ended up really getting into the game. And I think we all ended up responding very personally to the hopes and aspirations of these people who are really cooking their hearts out,” he said. “The Stockholm Syndrome started to set in and we all seriously started to give a sh–.”
No, I never thought I’d hear the Stockhom Syndrome mentioned in connection with a cooking show either. The Taste really is full of surprises.